The Career Girl Murders: Gender, Race, and Crime in 1960s New York

Article excerpt

In 1964, a New York television producer penned a popular advice book for young women contemplating a move to the city. With the provocative title, Career Girl, Watch Your Step, author Max Wy lie explained that his chief concern was "the horrible incidence of crime that is overrunning our cities - and what the career girl can do about it to keep herself as safe as possible." Crime and violence were a fact of life in every urban neighborhood, he warned, and constant vigilance was a single woman's best defense. "No matter how accustomed to your own community you may become," Wylie warned, "never grow to feel safe in it. Feel threatened. You are threatened. You are never safe." (1964, 91-92).

Wylie s alarmism grew out of his own personal tragedy. A year earlier, his daughter Janice Wylie and her roommate Emily Hoffert had been brutally murdered in their Upper East Side apartment. The gruesome double homicide occurred on August 28, 1963 - the same day as the historic civil rights March on Washington. Articles on the two events ran side by side in New York newspapers, but they seemed to have no relation to each other. In retrospect, though, issues of race, gender, crime, and personal security were closely intertwined in this case and similar ones that filled the headlines during those volatile years.

At a moment when civil rights agitation and black militancy were sweeping the city, these cases produced a panic about "career girls" and crime that reinforced notions of women's vulnerability at a time when young white women were enjoying greater autonomy and visibility. While purportedly defending their new freedom, the emerging crime rhetoric sought to circumscribe female behavior and mobility through obsessive precautions with personal security and a reliance on male protection in the form of organized escorts and citizens' patrols. In 1966, conservatives and police exploited this racialized and gendered rhetoric to defeat police reform in the city in what proved to be one of the first major victories of a conservative law-and-order campaign that would come to dominate national politics in the late 1960s and help elect Richard Nixon to the presidency in 1968.

Scholars have long noted the importance of race and urban crime in fueling the white backlash of the 1960s. But only recently have historians recognized the role of gender in these anticrime mobilizations (Flamm 2005) . This essay builds on that idea by showing how popular fears of crime in the 1960s were a response not simply to increased crime and racial transition but to new freedoms and opportunities for young white women who were joining the urban workforce in growing numbers. As white New Yorkers mobilized to protect women and children in their neighborhoods; conservatives used racialized and gendered anticrime rhetoric to craft their appeals for law and order. Building on popular narratives of the Wylie-Hoffert murders and similar cases, conservatives presented young women's newfound autonomy in the city as threatened by a growing black crime wave abetted by racial and judicial liberalism. The history of these events illustrates how notions of crime and personal security helped discredit sixties liberalism and the key roles that race and gender played in the process.

The murders of Janice Wylie and Emily Hoffert occurred as the city s crime rate was just beginning its historic upward trajectory. New Yorks murder rate had been rising slowly for the past decade, from 4.0 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in the early 1950s to 7.6 in the early 1960s (see fig. 1). From a long-term perspective, crime rates at this time were still relatively low, but rising youth crime in the 1950s and early 1960s was already stirring public concern. In the late 1960s, the crime rate spiked sharply upward, beginning an unprecedented surge that would last until the early 1990s. Scholars do not agree on the causes of this surge, but a variety of factors - demographic changes, economic decline and restructuring, segregation and discriminatory law enforcement, rising rates of family dissolution, and a devastating heroin epidemic - were all likely contributors. …